(USA TODAY) - George Zimmerman's business with the criminal court in Florida may be done, but a federal civil rights investigation remains open, and legal experts say he could face a civil suit.
A federal investigation into the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is underway, and prosecutors from the Justice Department's civil rights division will review evidence from the FBI and the Florida criminal trial, the Justice Department said Sunday in a written statement.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated townhouse community in Sanford, Fla., shot and killed Trayvon on Feb. 26, 2012, as he returned home from buying snacks at a convenience store. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, claimed he shot the unarmed African-American teenager in self-defense.
"Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate," the statement said.
NAACP President Ben Jealous said on CNN that the civil rights organization had spoken with Justice Department officials about lodging federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
"There will be a federal civil rights phase," Jealous said.
Trayvon's family could sue Zimmerman in civil court for wrongful death, following the example of the families of O.J. Simpson's former wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, who sued the football star and won $33.5 million after he was acquitted on murder charges. A wrongful death lawsuit seeks money damages rather than punishment.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., issued a statement urging the family to sue Zimmerman.
"While I am profoundly disappointed with the ruling in this case, the criminal portion of the process has run its course," Wilson said. "I encourage Trayvon's parents to pursue vindication of their rights under civil law."
Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the verdict a "tragic miscarriage of justice."
"No matter how you look at this situation, if it were not for the actions of Mr. Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin would still be alive with his family today," she said in a statement. "Yet there is still the potential for justice to be served through a civil suit brought about by Trayvon Martin's surviving family members, and also through civil rights charges."
Although Zimmerman has few assets, a book or movie deal could make him a lucrative target for a wrongful death suit, said Randy Reep, a criminal defense attorney in Jacksonville.
Apart from money, the family might sue "if only for a victory in principle," he said.
Despite the acquittal in criminal court, Trayvon's parents could win in civil court, where a lower standard of proof prevails, he said. A jury in civil court need only be convinced that Zimmerman "more likely than not" is responsible for Trayvon's wrongful death, he said. In a criminal court, a jury can acquit if they have "reasonable doubt."
Zimmerman would be immune to such a lawsuit only if he asked for a hearing under Florida's "stand-your-ground" law and a judge found he justifiably used force in self-defense in the face of an "unlawful threat," Reep said.
Zimmerman's lawyer, Mark O'Mara, commented Saturday night on the possibility of suits against his client.
"On the civil aspect, if someone believes that it's appropriate to sue George Zimmerman, then we will seek and we will get immunity in a civil hearing.
"We'll see just how many civil lawsuits are spawned from this fiasco."